I recently spent three hours completing an online financial expenses claim form for the finance department of our university relating to an overseas research trip. There were only 20 items of expenditure to be entered. However, each of the receipts had to be copied, reduced in size to suit the requirements of the software and uploaded into the system, along with separate details of the credit card payments for them. These had to be matched with numbered explanatory entries on another page of the online form, none of which could be automatically generated, and each of which required separate keyboard entry. On average, it therefore took me nine minutes per entry. I’m sure that anyone who has been forced to use Unit4’s Agresso software will know just what a cumbersome and time-consuming piece of software this is. Of course, it purports to reduce the time spent by staff in the accounts department, thus reducing the university’s expenditure on staffing, but this is at a significant cost in terms of the amount of time that I, as a user, have to spend. In the past, using hard copy receipts and forms, this task would have taken me much less than an hour to complete. My time is precious, and this represents a significant waste of time and money for myself and the university, over and above the costs that the university has incurred in purchasing the software and training staff in its use.
This is but one example of the ways in which digital tech is being designed and used to shift the expenditure of labour from the top downwards, and from the centre to the periphery (see my 2020 post on this for more examples). End users now have to do the work that those at the centre of networks (such as organisations, institutions, or governments) previously had to do; end users produce and upload the data that the centre formerly collected and processed. This is one of the main reasons why workers and citizens are now forced to spend considerably longer time and more effort completing mundane tasks, for the benefit of more powerful centres (and people) who give them no choice, and force them to conform to the digital systems that they control.
Examples of everyday digital oppression
There are many examples of this tendency, but the following currently seem to be most problematic (over and above the ever present challenge of spam, hacking and online fraud; I do not, though, address issues such as digital violence and sexual harassment here because I have written about them elsewhere, and want in this piece to focus instead on the everyday, normal processes through which structural imbalances are designed and enforced in the everyday use of digital tech):
- The (ab)use of e-mails, especially when disseminated by the centre to groups of people. It is easy to send e-mails from the centre to many people at the periphery or down the hierarchy, but the total burden of time and effort for all the recipients can be enormous. This is particularly with respect to copy correspondence, which adds considerably to the burden (see my e-mail reflections written in 2010 but still valid!). It is increasingly difficult for many people to do any constructive work, because they are inundated with e-mails.
- Being forced to download attachments and print them off for meetings. Some people “at the centre” still require those attending meetings to print off hard copies of documents before attending. This is quite ridiculous, since it vastly increases the total amount of time and effort involved. If hard copy materials are required, these should always be produced and distributed by the centre and not the end user.
- Extending the working day through access to and use of digital tech. The above two observations are examples of the general principle that digital tech has been used very widely to extend the working day, without paying staff for this increase. The idea that e-mails can be answered at home after “work”, or personal training done in “spare time”, are but two ways through which this additional expropriation of surplus value is achieved.
- Companies requiring users to complete online forms and upload information. This widespread practice is one of the most common ways through which companies reduce their own labour costs and increase the burden on those for whom they are intended to be providing services. Creating online accounts, logging on with passwords, and then filling in online forms has become increasingly onerous for users, especially when the forms and systems are problematic or don’t have options for what the consumer wants to enquire about. Such systems also take little consideration of the needs of people with disabilities or ageing with dementia who often have very great difficulty in interacting with the technology.
- Users having to download information, rather than receiving it automatically at their convenience. Centres, be they companies or organisations, now almost universally require users to log on to their systems and go through complex, time-consuming protocols to gain access to the information that centres wish to disseminate (banks, financial organisations, and utility companies are notorious for this). In the past, such material was delivered to users’ letter boxes and could simply be accessed by opening an envelope. Again, this is to the benefit of the centres rather than the users.
- Useless Chatbots, FAQs, online Help options and voice options on phone calls. Numerous organisations require consumers/users to go through digital systems that are quite simply not fit for purpose and often take a very considerable amount of users’ time (and indeed costs of connectivity). While some systems do provide basic information reasonably well, the majority do not, and require users to spend ages trying to find out relevant information. Many organisations also now make it very difficult for users to find alternative ways of communicating with them, such as by telephone. Even when one can get through to a telephone number and negotiate the lengthy and confusing numerical or voice recognition options, it frequently takes an extremely long time (often well over 30 minutes, or a 16th of the working day) before it is possible to speak with someone. Sadly, human responders once contacted are also often poorly trained and frequently cannot give accurate answers.
- Having to use yet another digital system chosen by centres and leaders to exploit you in their own interests. There are now so many different online cloud systems for communicating with each other at work (or play), such as Microsoft’s Teams, Google’s Workspace, Slack, Trello, Asana, and Basecamp (to name but a few). None of us can expect to be adept at using all of them. However, leaders of organisations and teams generally impose their own preferred software solution (or those ordained by their organisation) on members. Rarely are they willing to change their own preferences to suit those of other team members. Hence, this reinforces power relationships and those lower down the food chain are forced to comply with solutions that may well not suit them.
- Filling in forms online that are badly designed, crash on you, and often don’t have a save function for partially completed material. I am finding this to be an increasingly common and very frustrating form of hidden abuse. The number of times I have had to fill in forms online that take far longer than just writing a document or sending an e-mail is becoming ever greater. This is particularly galling when the software freezes or the save function does not work, and everything gets lost, forcing me to start all over again. The hours I have lost in this way (particularly in completing documents for UN agencies) are innumerable.
- Time wasted in having to scroll through quantities of inane social media to find a message that someone has sent you and is complaining that you have not yet responded to it. The answer to this is simply not to use social media, and especially groups (see my practices), or to “unfriend” people who do this, but increasingly this is yet another means through which centres seek to control and exploit those at the peripheries or lower down the work hierarchy.
- Centres simply failing to respond to digital correspondence, especially with complaints, and forcing users to keep chasing them online. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to fill in an online form, usually about something I have been asked to do by a company or agency, or concerning an appointment or complaint, only for them never to reply. This forces me to waste yet further time trying to contact them about why they haven’t responded!
This list of examples could be added to at great length, and mainly reflects my own current angst (for earlier examples see On managerial control and the tyranny of digital technologies). To be sure, not all digital systems are as appalling as the above would suggest, and credit should be given where due. The UK’s digital service, https://gov.uk is generally a notable positive exception to this generalisation, and I was, for example, very impressed when I recently had to use it to renew a passport. However, to change this situation it is necessary to understand its causes, the most important of which are discussed below.
The rise of digital capitalism and the causes of digital oppression
Five main causes lie at the heart of the above challenges. Underlying them all, though, is the notion that it is right and proper for companies to seek to expand their markets and lower their costs of production in the pursuit of growth. Capital accumulation is one of the defining (and problematic) characteristics of all forms of the capitalist mode of production, and new digital technologies have two key attributes in supporting this process: first, the use of digital tech very rapidly accelerates all forms of human interaction; and second, their use can replace much human labour (thus increasing the human labour productivity of those remaining in employment) . On the assumption that the cost of introducing digital tech is cheaper than the cost of human labour, then digital tech can be used dramatically to increase the rates of capital accumulation and surplus profit acquisition by the owners of the means of production. However, if there is insufficient demand in the market, not least because of falling purchasing power as a result of reduced levels of human labour, then the twin crises of realisation and accumulation will inevitably ultimately cause fundamental problems for the system as a whole. It must also be realised that (as yet) digital tech does not actually have any power of its own. The power lies with those who conceive, design, construct and market these technologies in their own interests. As the apparent AI ethical crisis at the moment clearly indicates, the scientists who support this process are as much to blame for its faults as are the owners of capital who pay them. Five aspects of this underlying principle can be seen at work in leading to the current situation whereby those at the system peripheries or the bottom of hierarchies are being increasingly oppressed through the uses of digital tech (as described in the examples above):
- First, labour costs have generally long been perceived as being the critical cost factor in many industrial and commercial sectors. The digital tech sector has therefore been very adept at persuading other companies and organisations to do away with human labour and replace it with technology in the productive process. The labour that is left must be forced to work longer hours while also increasing its productivity. However, companies and organisations have also been persuaded that they can make further significant cost savings by ensuring that consumers and staff lower down the hierarchy do much of the work for themselves by, for example, filling in online forms and using chatbots as discussed above. Digital tech is used to shift the balance of time spent on tasks to the consumers or users. This insidious shift of emphasis is a classic expression of the digital oppression that is now increasing being felt by people across the world.
- A second significant feature of capitalist enterprises is their need to create as uniform a market as possible so that they are then able sell as many of the same products or services as they can. This emphasis on uniformity requires users to adjust their previously diverse human behaviours to conform to the uniform digital systems that are imposed on them. It lowers overall costs, and enables markets rapidly to be expanded. We experience this every time we have to choose which of a number of options we are given on a phone call, or fill in an online form, where what we are concerned about does not easily fit in to any of the options we are given. Similarly, we encounter it every time someone wanting us to do something requires us to use their software package or app rather than our preferred one. Again, we encounter a different form of digital oppression.
- Third, the increasing emphasis and reliance on digital systems means that the human labour remaining in organisations and companies becomes increasingly overstretched. Without adding to the amount of time that they work, staff having to use digital systems through which they are constantly bombarded with requests and actions become ever more oppressed. Furthermore, the difficulty of finding qualified and knowledgeable staff competent enough to give a good service to clients and customers, means that organisations are increasingly not capable of responding satisfactorily to those who don’t fit into the uniform-demanding digital systems that they now operate. This is why some companies make it as difficult as possible for clients and customers actually to speak with a human being among their staff, and why the quality of service they provide can be so bad. Some turn to call centres overseas, which often provide a dire service on poor quality phone lines staffed by people who cannot competently speak or understand the language of the customers.
- Fourth, much of the software and systems that governments, organisations and companies are persuaded to buy by the tech sector is poorly designed, poorly constructed and poorly implemented. As but one example, in 2015 the abandoned NHS patient record system in the UK had “so far cost the taxpayer nearly £10bn, with the final bill for what would have been the world’s largest civilian computer system likely to be several hundreds of millions of pounds higher, according a highly critical report from parliament’s public spending watchdog” (The Guardian, 2015). The quality of design and programming in many apps, especially when outsourced to countries with very different cultures of coding, is often very low, and it is unsurprising that the functionality of many digital systems is so dire. Despite much rhetoric about human-computer interaction and user-centred design, the reality is that much tech is still built by people with little real knowledge and expertise in what users really want and how best to make it happen. All too often, they are themselves brought up within the culture of uniformity that limits real quality innovation.
- Finally, the scientism (science’s belief in itself) that has come to dominate the tech sector and its role in human societies has largely served the interests of the rich and powerful, not least through the hope that aspirant digital scientists have to join that elite themselves. Ultimately, this serves the interests of the few rather than the many. Those on the peripheries or at the lower end of hierarchies have instead become increasingly oppressed and enslaved as a result of the propagation of digital tech across all aspects of human life (see my Freedom, enslavement and the digital barons: a thought experiment). It is becoming ever more crucial to challenge scientism, and counter the belief that science in general, and digital tech in particular, has the ability to solve all of the world’s problems.
What’s to be done
None of these challenges and none of the reasons underlying them need to be as they are. There is nothing sacrosanct or inevitable about the design, creation and use of digital tech. We do not need it to be as it is. It is only so because of the interests of the scientists who make it and the owners of the companies who pay them to do so.
There are numerous ways through which we can challenge the increasingly dominant hegemony of the digital tech sector in human society at both an individual and an institutional level. I concentrate here on suggestions for individual actions that can help us regain our humanity, leaving the discussion of the important regulatory transformations that are essential at a structural level for a future post. After all, it is only as individuals in our daily actions that we can ever regain any real power over the structures that oppress our “selves”. Any actions that can help change the underlying structures and practices giving rise to the oppressions exemplified at the start of this post are of value, and they will vary according to our individual space-time conjuctures. I offer the following as an initial step to what might be termed a revolutionary practice of digital freedom:
- Create multiple identities for ourselves. As individuals we are much more complex than the uniformity that digital systems wish to impose on us. We are so much more than a single digital identity. Hence, we must do all we can to create multiple identities for ourselves as individuals, and resist in every way possible attempts to control and surveil us through the imposition of such things as single digital identities.
- We must resist being forced to use specific digital technologies. We should always refuse to use digital tech when we can do something perfectly well without it. We must likewise very strongly resist attempts by companies, governments and organisations to force us to use a single piece of tech (hardware or software) to do something, and always demand that they provide a solution through our individually preferred technologies. At a banal level, for example, if you are happy with using Zoom and Apple’s Keynote, Mail, Numbers and Pages, you should never be forced by anyone to use Microsoft Teams or Google Workspace. If people or organisations are not willing to adapt to your individual needs they are probably not worth working with (or for) anyway. Many societies now require restaurants to provide details of all possible food preferences and allergies, so why should we accept being oppressed by digital tech companies who only wish us to conform to one uniform system?
- We should never accept poor quality digital systems. If you cannot do something you want to through an organisation’s digital systems, then it is always worth complaining about it. Writing a letter of complaint, copied widely to relevant ombudsmen, is not only quicker than trying to use poor quality tech systems, but numerous complaints can cumulatively help to change organisations.
- We must always challenge scientism, and emphasise the importance of the humanities in answering the questions that scientists cannot answer. Our particular structure of science primarily serves the interests of scientists, who work in very particular ways. This model of science is overwhelming dominant in the way in which digital tech is created. Although scientists can produce impressive results, they are not the guardians of all knowledge, and they are by no means always right. Almost every theory that has ever been constructed, for example, has at some later time been disproved. We must therefore resist all efforts to make science (or STEM subjects) dominant in our education systems. We must cherish the arts and humanities as being just as valuable for the future health of the societies of which we are parts.
- We should identify and challenge the interests underlying a particular digital development. All too often innovations in digital tech are seen as being inevitable and natural. This is quite simply not the case. All developments of new technology serve particular interests, almost always of the rich and powerful. To create a fairer and more equal society this must change. The scientists who have developed generative AI, for example, are completely responsible for its implications, and it is ridiculous that they should now be saying that it has gone too far and should somehow be controlled. They did not have to create it as it is in the first place.
- We need to implement our own digital systems to manage emails and social media. It is perfectly possible to reduce the amount of digital bombardment that we receive, but we need to manage this consciously and practically (see my Reflections on e-mails). Simple ways to start doing this are: file all copy correspondence separately; always remove yourself from mailing lists unless you really want to receive messages (you can always rejoin later); limit your participation in social media (especially WhatsApp) group; and keep a record of the time you spend each day doing digital tasks (it will amaze you) and think of how you could use this time more productively!
- Take time offline/offgrid to regain our humanity. It is perfectly possible still to live life offline and offgrid. Many of the world’s poorest people have always done so. The more we are offline, the more we realise that we do not need always to be connected digitally. Some time ago I created the hashtag #1in7offline, to encourage us to spend a day a week offline, or, if we cannot do that, an hour every seven hours offline. Not only does this reduce our electricity consumption (and is thus better for the physical environment), but it also gives us time to regain our experience of nature, thereby regaining our humanity. The physical world is still much better than the virtual world, despite the huge amount of pressure from digital tech companies for us to believe otherwise. Remember that if we don’t use physical objects such as banknotes and coins, or physical letters and postcards, we will lose them. Think, for example, of the implications of this, not least in terms of the loss of the physical beauty of the graphics and design on banknotes or stamps, key expressions of our varying national identities (not again that digital leads to bland uniformity). Remember too that every digital transaction that we make provides companies and governments with information about us that they then use to generate further profit or to surveil us ever more precisely. Being offline and offgrid is being truly revolutionary.